Hanna Cheek in "Overbite"
Hanna Cheek in "Overbite"
Sharp knives hurtle towards a woman pressed against a wooden target board, and the blades sink into the wood just inches away from her exposed flesh. The act is performed by The Great Throwdini and his assistant Niabi Caldwell. After a few standard knife throws performed in silence, Caldwell begins speaking; she directs her words to her husband Walt (Throwdini), who remains silent throughout. Caldwell's character verbally abuses her partner even as he throws the deadly weapons in her direction. Placing a balloon between her legs, she calmly comments upon Walt's impotence. Pop! Thunk! The knife embeds itself into the wood, bursting the balloon. Caldwell never breaks character and should definitely be commended for keeping her cool under pressure.

Entitled "Pin Cushion," this is the third and most compelling tale in Clay McLeod Chapman's latest theatrical venture, The Pumpkin Pie Show in Big Top. Faux circus posters hang on the walls of the tiny Red Room Theater, signifying the carnival-themed stories that comprise the evening's performance. The posters depict some of the circus acts mentioned in the show, such as The Iron Jaw. There's also an image of the Pumpkin Pie Show house band, One Ring Zero, which provides musical underscoring and transitions. Oftentimes, the music has an appropriately carnivalesque flair.

Chapman has gained something of a cult following for his darkly comic monologues. In this performance, the author plays only two of his characters--the son of the circus's Fat Lady (who spends his time at the dunking booth, taunting customers into taking a shot at him) and a hired hand at the circus who is drawn in by the lure of an ethereal trapeze artist. Chapman's vocal intonation is more like that of a spoken word artist than an actor; his line delivery, while energetic and richly theatrical, tends to be very similar from piece to piece.

The Great Throwdini and his assistant,Niabi Caldwell, in "Pin Cushion"
The Great Throwdini and his assistant,
Niabi Caldwell, in "Pin Cushion"
It is therefore interesting to see what happens when another player speaks his words. Hanna Cheek plays The Iron Jaw in Chapman's tale, "Overbite." The piece initially seems like a sad account of love denied through the freakish power of the narrator's jaw, which enables her to suspend herself from a trapeze solely through the strength of her bite. Unfortunately, it also causes some problems in the bedroom: "I've chewed through suitors like a box of chocolates," she laments. Cheek has a sultry physical presence that is complemented by a slight lisp which, her character notes, is a result of having bitten off part of her own tongue before she ever bit off anyone else's.

The final act in Big Top is "Tummy Tamer," performed by Max Moore. The actor possesses enormously expressive eyes and an elastic face that is well-suited to this story, which features a lion tamer's head speaking from inside the stomach of the lion whom he had supposedly tamed. Unfortunately, despite Moore's frenetic energy, the piece is not as gripping as some of Chapman's other tales. Overall, in fact, this latest collection of Chapman stories lacks the punch of some of his previous shows. Nevertheless, the evening is still quite entertaining, and it's obvious that the cast takes delight in performing the material.